Having a baby in Japan is something I never imagined myself doing when I first moved here 8 years ago. I was young, single, and ready to explore everything the country had to offer. I used to joke with my coworkers that being an English teacher was the perfect birth control, because no one wanted to go home to kids after dealing with a bunch of demanding ones all day.
So, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel on the September evening when my labor induction was scheduled to take place. Society tells us that we should feel happiness and excitement with the arrival of a new baby. Instead, I felt a sense of dread and fear. Not towards the baby itself, but of the unknown ways our lives would forever change.
Preparing to Go to the Hospital
Several months prior to my due date, my husband had registered for a pregnancy taxi to pick us up and take us to the hospital. These taxis are very convenient, because you don’t have to waste time telling them your address or where to go while potentially in the middle of labor. They keep all of your details on file so it’s one less thing you have to worry about.
On September 25th my husband gave the taxi company a call to tell them we were ready to be taken to the hospital. I stood looking at myself and my bulging stomach in front of the dirty bedroom mirror while he took care of everything.
What will my life look like when I return?
My hospital bag was already packed and sitting by the door. As soon as my husband got off the phone, he quickly put on his shoes, grabbed the bag, and headed out of the door. He wanted to flag the taxi down so it would be easier to find our home.
He was very excited to become a father. He told me about it on our second date back when we were just getting to know each other. I recalled how happy he was when he explained that he wanted to have two children and carry one under each arm. There were so many things that he wanted to teach them, and games that he wanted to play.
He’ll be a great dad, but will I be a great mother?
The feeling of dread that I had been experiencing my whole pregnancy grew even stronger as I put on my shoes and joined him outside.
That Wednesday was a bit cloudy, and the sunlight was already slipping away despite it not being even 3:00 pm yet. I looked down at the small stream next to our house, and slowly started to feel detached.
What kind of person will I be when I come back?
What if I don’t come back?!
I wouldn’t learn until later why I felt the way that I did, and that thinking such things wasn’t shameful. Severe anxiety and panic attacks affect around 6% of women before giving birth, and I was one of them.
My husband was chatting away to me about something, but my mind was already too far withdrawn to hear anything. I said goodbye out loud to our house in case I never returned, and then I looked at him. That was when I saw the expression on his face drop and the excitement was gone.
“Okay, now I’m nervous” he said just as the taxi pulled up.
I felt bad, because I knew that my sour mood had affected him, and was taking away from a moment that should otherwise be joyous. I felt a responsibility to him as his wife to maintain a more cheerful demeanor, because we didn’t know if we’d ever experience having a baby again.
READ: Having a Baby in Japan (Basic Guidelines)
Riding the Pregnancy Taxi to the Hospital
The back door of the taxi swung open just as the vehicle pulled up. My husband got in first and slid over so I could sit down without much effort. For some reason I was expecting the pregnancy taxi to look special. I thought it would have bigger seats covered in plastic with more leg room or something.
Instead, it had the typical white embroidered covering that seems prevalent in Japan. I examined it and wondered if anyone had ever given birth in the back seat on the way to the hospital.
The taxi driver confirmed our destination with my husband and then look a bit nervously at us in the rear-view mirror.
“Is she going to be okay? Are you in a hurry?” he asked.
My husband had to explain that I wasn’t in labor yet and that the taxi driver could take his time getting us there. He looked relieved and then started driving.
As we were driving towards the clinic, the taxi driver confirmed my suspicions and started telling us a story about a woman who had given birth in the back of the car.
She had been in labor for quite some time before finally deciding to call to be picked up, and her contractions were strong by the time he arrived.
He said that he asked the woman if he should call an ambulance, but she assured him that she was fine. Moments later he had to pull over into a convenience store parking lot, because the baby’s head had already started to emerge, and it was born right there.
He continued talking a bit more with my husband, but I had trouble listening, because I was too concerned about my own labor and delivery that were just a few hours ahead.
After about 20 minutes or so we arrived. Our fare came to just under 4,000 yen, but we didn’t have to pay thanks to a voucher that was given to us by the clinic.
He wished us good luck as we exited the taxi.
Being Admitted to the Clinic
It was eerily quiet and empty when we walked into the clinic. Usually it had a few dozen pregnant women waiting in the lobby area when I came for my prenatal checkups. This time, however, there were only two receptionists waiting for us at the front desk. It just seemed really strange to be so deserted considering it was only 3:00 pm.
I tried to give my patient ID card to one of the receptionists as was customary, but she said that it wasn’t needed and to just go upstairs. I had only been to the second floor once during a tour about a month before. That was when they showed a group of us soon-to-be parents around the various rooms and gave some basic explanations.
We were able to briefly see all of the cute sleeping newborn babies through the nursery window near the end of the tour. I couldn’t believe how small they all were.
I thought I would see them again as I climbed the stairs, but I noticed that the blinds were drawn shut when I reached the top. I was a bit sad that I wouldn’t get to admire their little faces again until after I had my own.
A nurse spotted me through the window and came out right away to greet us. We sat down on a bench just outside of the nursery, and I could hear some faint little cries.
The nurse asked us a few questions to confirm who we were and our birthing plan. My husband had to fill out a form and talked with her a bit while I sat there with my mind drifting.
It’s going to happen soon...
I’ll be a mother in a few hours…
The nurse told me to follow her and we left my husband behind as she took me to my private room. It wasn’t the one where I would give birth, but the one I would spend my recovery time in for the next 4 days.
Once inside the room, she handed me two large bags of supplies that the clinic provided. Included in one of the bags were a few pairs of those oh so lovely postpartum underwear with the Velcro flap that opens. There were also a few packs of the large postpartum pads.
I was instructed to put them on along with a hospital robe. After I finished changing, the nurse told me to go back down to the first floor and wait outside the examination room. That was where the labor induction would begin.
I started to feel more nervous and asked her if it would hurt.
“Just a little,” she said.
THAT was an understatement!
I made my way back down the stairs. There were two men at the entrance that looked like they were repairing something. I awkwardly walked by them in my hospital robe, hoping that one of my boobs wouldn’t slip out or something.
READ: Pregnancy and birth in Japan: a cultural primer for foreign mothers
Starting the Labor Induction Process
I sat down on the bench that was just outside of the examination room. Within seconds a nurse peeked her head out of the door and told me to come in. She said to take my slippers off, but that I could keep the postpartum underwear on.
In front of me was a chair that I’m sure most women in Japan are familiar with. It’s the same kind that they make you sit in for routine gynecological exams. It’s motorized and has a hole in the seat.
The way that it raises you up, tilts you back, and pulls your legs apart makes it feel like you’re a car being worked on by a mechanic.
I absolutely hate them.
Unfortunately, I had to sit in them so often throughout my pregnancy that they became a huge annoyance by that point.
I sat down and could hear the doctor chatting away with some of the nurses. He then appeared from behind the curtain and said that he was going to check to see if I was dilated. After a few seconds of prodding around, he looked back at me and said, “0 centimeters!”
I was a little let down, but not surprised considering I was being induced two weeks before my due date. The doctor then explained that he was going to insert a “ball” to get my cervix to open.
I had no idea what he was referring to, but later learned that it was a Foley bulb. The way that he said it made it not sound too bad, so I just nodded and he proceeded.
I don’t even know how to describe the pain I felt next.
I was not mentally prepared for what was about to happen. Getting the Foley bulb inserted was one of the most excruciating pains I’ve ever felt. I thought that I would just feel some slight discomfort and pressure. I did not imagine that I would actually feel like something was ripping my cervix apart.
It was all I could do to not kick and scream. I tried to be strong and remain in control, but a yell managed to escape my throat along with a few whimpers.
The doctor started calling out instructions from behind the curtain on how to breathe. It was the same way he had us practice in the group with other pregnant women during the tour.
If the induction is this painful, how am I going to survive the labor and delivery?
When it was all over, my legs were shaking and weak. The doctor opened the curtain and looked at me sympathetically. He gave me an otsukaresama and told me that I could relax for a short while.
That would be easier said than done…
Getting the Epidural
The main reason my husband and I chose this particular clinic was because it was one of the few in our area that offered an epidural. The majority of hospitals in Japan still force women to have non-medicated births unless having a c-section.
The belief is that childbirth should be as natural as possible, and it’s better for both the mother and child in the end.
I’m not going to get into a debate about whether a medicated or non-medicated birth is better. Each woman is different and it’s up to each of us to decide what to do with our bodies.
However, keep in mind that if you’re at least considering getting an epidural in Japan, you’ll have to reserve your spot at a hospital that offers one very early in your pregnancy.
If you wait until after the first trimester it might be too late. Spots fill up quickly due to the high demand and limited resources.
So, don’t wait!
After I finished getting the Foley bulb inserted, I took the elevator back up to the second floor. I was in so much pain that there was no way I could make it up the stairs.
The same nurse that helped me earlier was waiting for me and took me to one of the delivery rooms. I wasn’t ready to give birth yet, but this was where the doctor would insert the epidural tube in preparation for labor.
I had to remove one arm from my hospital robe so that my back was exposed. The nurse then had me to practice curling up into a tight fetal position while lying on my side. This was to open up the spaces in my spine.
It was hard to hold the position for long, because it put so much pressure on my huge pregnant belly.
I was feeling quite terrified by this point. Especially after getting Foley bulb. I wasn’t sure how much more pain I could take. Recalling all those articles I had read about the possibility of becoming paralyzed didn’t help either. Just ignore those!
I focused really hard on breathing to calm my nerves and block out everything. The same doctor from before entered the room and began the procedure. First, he sterilized the injection area and numbed it a bit. Then he asked me to curl up a bit tighter and inserted the needle.
Quite a bit.
However, it wasn’t nearly as bad as getting the Foley bulb placed in.
People often describe getting an epidural as feeling like a bee sting, but I’ve been stung by a bee before and the epidural wasn’t nearly as bad.
To be honest, I felt more pain and discomfort from having to curl tightly over my stomach for so long. Part of me worried that I was squishing the baby, so I apologized to her in my head.
The doctor secured the tube in place with tape, and told me that I could finally get some rest. All in all the whole procedure took only about 5 minutes, and went by very quickly.
Getting rest wouldn’t be so easy, though. I had a tube sticking out of my back and a balloon in my vagina.
However, I was relieved to finally get a break from medical procedures and to see my husband again.
I went back to my private room, and my husband was waiting there with the fridge full of food that he had picked up from a convenience store nearby. I was so glad to see him, and told him of the horrors I had been through.
He stayed with me until about 10:00 pm, and then he headed home. I tried my best to get some sleep despite having what felt like severe menstrual cramps, and a burning tugging feeling in my back.
Going into Labor
I managed to get about 2 hours of sleep off and on. I stayed in bed until a nurse came at around 6:00 am. She took me to one of the labor rooms and hooked up a heart rate monitor for the baby. She then inserted an IV into my arm to prevent me from becoming dehydrated, and also to administer the epidural.
The nurse told me that she was going to remove the Foley bulb, and gave me the option of receiving the epidural before or after. I opted to have it done beforehand, because I was tired from the pain and discomfort I felt all night. I was hoping to get a bit more rest before the delivery ahead.
READ: One Tokyo Mom’s Experience Having a High-Risk Pregnancy
The nurse nodded and gave me my first dose.
It felt like an ice cold chill running through my spine.
The pain relief wasn’t immediate, but I began to feel a numbing sensation spread from my back and through my thighs.
The nurse left the room and returned 30 minutes later. She asked if I could still move my legs. They were heavy, but I was still able to lift both of them. Ideally this wouldn’t be the case.
The Foley bulb removal was still very painful even with the epidural, so the nurse was concerned and went to consult with the doctor. That was after telling me that I had dilated only 1 centimeter!
I was extremely disappointed to say the least. I expected to be 3 centimeters dilated or more to justify the amount of pain that was involved.
I was beginning to feel that getting induced early was a mistake.
My husband arrived at the clinic and joined me in the labor room at 6:30 am. The nurse gave me a pill that would help my cervix to continue dilating. Over the course of the labor I ended up taking 4 of such pills.
The contractions I felt were very strong but short. I felt each wave as a sharp pain in my rib cage where the epidural had no effect. Breakfast was brought into the labor room at 8:00 am, but I only managed to eat a few bites. The contractions completely killed off my appetite.
Luckily my husband was there to enjoy all of my delicious breakfast for me!
He also got to finish most of my lunch and dinner as well!
I was in the labor room from around 6:00 am to 8:00 pm that day. I wondered if my cervix would ever dilate enough for the baby to be born, or if I would need to have a c-section. The nurse warned me that it would be a possibility if the baby didn’t come that night.
Eventually the pain got so bad that the doctor decided to remove the epidural tube and reinsert it.
He pushed points on my legs and I could still feel it, so he told the nurse to give me a higher dosage. I was excited because I thought I’d finally get to experience the rest of my labor and delivery pain free.
The epidural dosage was strong enough that I could no longer move my legs. My ribs, unfortunately, still felt every wave of pain with each contraction.
I was finally moved to the delivery room after 14 hours in the labor room, and 29 hours total at the clinic. I was 8 centimeters dilated when the nurse brought in a wheelchair to transfer me.
My husband lifted me onto the chair because my legs were completely useless, and the tiny Japanese woman couldn’t get me to budge.
My weight was up to 82 kilograms by week 38. It was the heaviest I have ever been, and way heavier than most Japanese nurses are used to dealing with.
Once my husband got me into the wheelchair, I was pushed to the delivery room where we would finally meet our baby.
Welcoming Our Daughter into the World
The nurse and my husband lifted me together from the wheelchair onto the delivery bed. She checked the position of the baby, and noted that she was still really high up in my uterus.
Normally babies drop down when the body is ready for delivery, but mine hadn’t had a chance to because I was induced and my contractions weren’t lasting long enough.
The nurse went and got a doctor who was different from the one before. He looked younger and like he hadn’t had much sleep in a few days. It was my first time meeting him and that didn’t help with my confidence much.
The nurse told him about the baby’s position and said I’d probably need the suction vacuum to get the baby out. The doctor checked the baby’s position as well and said that he disagreed. He thought that putting pressure on my abdomen during the contractions would be enough to push her out.
The nurse ended up being right.
After an hour of her pressing painfully on my abdomen and the baby not budging, the doctor finally agreed to use suction.
My ribs felt bruised and I wanted to cry after pushing for so long without any progress. I was wondering in my head how to ask them to do a c-section in Japanese. I felt like I didn’t have any strength left to push and just wanted the delivery over with already.
It took a while for them to get the vacuum ready. The nurse told me to rest a bit and try to recover some of my strength.
My husband sat to my right the whole time, watching and trying to encourage me. He also translated anything that I didn’t understand. I highly recommend being together with your partner in the delivery room if it’s an option at the hospital you choose.
An additional nurse came into the room with a camera when the doctor was ready. All total there were 2 nurses, the doctor, and my husband present during the delivery.
I imagined there would be more people based on videos I had watched on YouTube, but I guess that’s a big difference between giving birth in Japan and the US.
It was time for me to push again.
“Deep breath in.”
“Deep breath in.”
“Deep breath in.”
I pushed with all of my might while there were now TWO nurses pumping hard on my stomach. It was impossible for me to hold my breath longer than 2 or 3 seconds with them bearing down on me full strength.
My ribs felt like they were going to crack.
Tears were streaming down my eyes.
I had no energy left.
Before I knew it, my next contraction came and I had to do it again. The doctor adjusted the vacuum a bit and the nurse once again commanded me:
“Deep breath in.”
“Deep breath in.”
“Deep breath in.”
The push was much weaker than the last one because I was so exhausted, and my rib cage felt like it was going to cave in at any moment.
My body became limp.
I was defeated.
I gave up.
“The baby is coming next!” the doctor yelled.
“The baby is coming!!” my husband repeated excitedly.
For some reason I almost didn’t believe them. Despite all of the pain it just didn’t seem real.
One final time the nurse told me to breathe and push again.
Somehow I mustered up strength that I didn’t think I had. I gave one final push like my life and the baby’s life depended on it. And then for a few moments things were quiet. I stared up at the ceiling in a daze and felt as if I wasn’t even there.
A few seconds later I heard, “She’s born!” followed by a very loud cry.
It was 10:09 pm on September 26, 2019 that my little girl arrived. She cried uncontrollably as the nurse cleaned her mouth and nose and then placed her onto my chest for skin-to-skin.
I couldn’t believe she was finally here. I held onto her tightly, said her name, and told her that everything would be okay. It felt so strange and wonderful to feel her tiny body shaking and crying against mine.
She weighed 3296 grams and was 52.5 centimeters long. All of my fears about her health immediately vanished as soon as I saw her and held her in my arms.
Welcome to the world, my sweet little girl.
What a great insight into childbirth elsewhere. Interesting that the majority of hospitals force you to deliver unmedicated! It’s the same where I’m originally from in Ghana but I somehow expected different from Japan.
That delivery room looks amazing.
Thank you so much! I was also surprised to find out that most hospitals here don’t offer an epidural during delivery. I admire all of the women who have an unmedicated childbirth, but I’m just too mentally weak to go through it myself 😂
Aww, congratulations!! This blog definitely helps foreigners who live in Japan! Have a nice and warm holiday season and a happy new year!!
Happy holidays to you and your family as well ❤️